Metro man­agers and riders see two very di≠er­ent rail sys­tems

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - Dr. Grid­lock Dr. Grid­lock also ap­pears Thurs­day in Lo­cal Liv­ing. Com­ments and ques­tions are welcome and may be used in a col­umn, along with the writer’s name and home com­mu­nity. Write Dr. Grid­lock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C

Red Line riders may have felt left out in re­cent dis­cus­sions about how to ease Metro’s prob­lems on the other five lines. But a fo­rum in Mont­gomery County on Wed­nes­day swung the spotlight onto their trou­bled trav­els, and at the same time, il­lu­mi­nated some of the dif­fi­cul­ties for all riders.

First, the Red Line: Here’s what these bat­tered riders rep­re­sent col­lec­tively.

“The Red Line is the artery that runs through the heart of our county. It sim­ply must func­tion well,” said Mont­gomery County Coun­cil mem­ber Roger Ber­liner (D-Po­tomac-Bethesda), who chairs the panel’s trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee.

The com­mit­tee spon­sored the fo­rum in Rockville in part be­cause, as Ber­liner said, “al­most ev­ery day, in­clud­ing to­day, we read about or ex­pe­ri­ence a prob­lem with Metro.”

Coun­cil mem­ber Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) de­scribed what she called the “Mont­gomery con­ver­sa­tion”: Is Metro run­ning? Can I get to my ap­point­ment on time? Do I have to take a car?

Kevin Reigrut, an as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of trans­porta­tion in Mary­land, was at the fo­rum to rep­re­sent the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R). The ad­min­is­tra­tion, Reigrut said, is “look­ing for a sys­tem that is safe, a sys­tem that is re­li­able and a sys­tem that is ac­count­able.”

A key prob­lem: “We are los­ing the faith of riders on Metro.” If a rider de­cides not to board, that’s one more car on the road.

“The state of Mary­land can­not af­ford to see Metro fail,” Reigrut said.

If you’ve been fol­low­ing transit news for a while, you’re prob­a­bly wait­ing to hear the pitch that Metro needs more money. And there was some of that from of­fi­cials and transit ad­vo­cates at the fo­rum.

“There isn’t a transit agency in this coun­try that thinks it has enough money,” said Joshua Schank, pres­i­dent of the Eno Cen­ter for Trans­porta­tion, a re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion based in the Dis­trict.

But there was also con­cern about com­muters who need to keep more of their money. Metro’s “fare­box re­cov­ery rate” is one of the high­est in the coun­try, mean­ing that riders cover most of the cost of their train trips while taxpayers pick up the rest.

“Keep­ing the fare rates at the level they are now should be a goal,” said Mary­land Del. Marc A. Kor­man (D-Mont­gomery). “I think that’s part of the is­sue with rid­er­ship.”

It costs $5.90 to ride from Shady Grove to Metro Cen­ter at rush hour. Many of those Shady Grove riders need to add in $5.10 for all-day park­ing.

Here’s where we get to an un­der­ly­ing is­sue in­volv­ing how Metro per­ceives Metro’s prob­lems and the tasks ahead.

Metro of­fi­cials tend to de­scribe a rail sys­tem that is re­cov­er­ing af­ter years of in­ad­e­quate in­vest­ment in equip­ment and safety.

“The goal is that by 2017, we will have caught up with the back­log” in­terim gen­eral man­ager Jack Re­qua said of Metro’s $5.5 bil­lion re­build­ing pro­gram.

Many Metro riders de­scribe a sys­tem that is bro­ken, af­ter years of of­fi­cial state­ments about new pro­grams meant to en­sure safety and re­li­able ser­vice.

“Some­thing is not right,” said Kor­man, who de­scribed him­self as a daily Metro rider. “Anec­do­tally, there’s a prob­lem on an al­most daily ba­sis.”

Sta­tis­ti­cally, things don’t look any bet­ter to Kor­man. Point­ing to Metro’s quar­terly re­ports on per­for­mance, he said, “WMATA’s own num­bers show a sys­tem that is not im­prov­ing. This tread­ing wa­ter is oc­cur­ring af­ter years of in­vest­ment.”

A sim­i­lar gulf ap­pears when the dis­cus­sion turns to the de­cline in rid­er­ship dur­ing re­cent years. Transit man­agers and Metro board mem­bers of­ten ex­plain the de­cline by point­ing to lin­ger­ing ef­fects of the re­ces­sion and the cut in the transit ben­e­fit that sub­si­dizes Metro­rail com­mutes for fed­eral em­ploy­ees.

When they look for­ward to a re­bound in rid­er­ship, they of­ten point to residential de­vel­op­ment close to sta­tions.

Schank said Metro needs to change its way of think­ing “to com­pete for pas­sen­gers.”

Look at how they see the sys­tem, he said. “They don’t feel safe. They don’t feel they are be­ing treated well. The ser­vice is un­re­li­able. They can’t get to places they want to go.”

Metro, he said, needs new sets of sta­tis­tics able to mea­sure and high­light the broader range of daily ser­vice is­sues that riders care about and have the po­ten­tial to “make the sys­tem more at­trac­tive to cus­tomers.”

Online dis­cus­sion

Want to ex­change views on what should mat­ter to Metro? Join me at noon Mon­day for our weekly online dis­cus­sion of lo­cal travel is­sues. Fol­low this link to the chat: live.wash­ing­ton­post.com/grid­lock0727.html.

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